Monday, December 01, 2008
Earlier this year, my nephew Campbell was diagnosed as mildly to moderately autistic. Since then, his twin brother Luke has been diagnosed as mildly autistic as well.
The thing about autism is that very few people know anything about it, yet everybody and their goddamn dog thinks that they're some kind of armchair expert. My sister has done her homework. She has truly done her due diligence. She probably has a better understanding of autism than anybody else I know. And she's constantly being badgered and corrected on her facts by well-meaning people who watched some fluff piece on Good Morning America.
You see, my sister believes that her sons' condition was exacerbated by the inoculations they started receiving just hours after they were born. She's not alone. Nearly 60% of the parents of autistic children believe that vaccines played a role in their child's condition. Their suspicions have been substantiated by medical professionals, and even a few insiders within the pharmaceutical companies.
But the pharmaceutical companies are the biggest problem. They've paid out billions of dollars to make sure that their interests are safeguarded in Washington D.C., so you get people like Dick Armey trying to sneak a rider onto the Homeland Security Bill granting autism liability protection to drug companies.
The drug companies have also spent an ungodly amount of money to discredit these concerned parents. They've managed to paint them as foil-hat-wearing loonies who want to abolish all drugs and unleash an epidemic of polio on the world, or as opportunistic money-grubbers who want to cash in on their children's disorder. After all the shit we went through with Big Tobacco, you'd think people would be too smart to fall for anything so transparent. But you'd be wrong.
The symptoms that many autistic children display are actually listed as possible side effects for a lot of these vaccines. But despite that, the drug companies clap their hands over their ears whenever concerned parents dare insinuate that these massive drug cocktails might have anything to do with their children's condition. They insist the problem is purely genetic. They are simply unbothered by the fact that autism has gone from being a rare diagnosis to affecting 1 in 150 children.
Perhaps most despicable of all is the way that the pharmaceutical companies have hijacked the once legitimate organization Autism Speaks and turned it into their own corporate shill. It was founded by the vice chairman of General Electric, Robert Wright, back in 2004 when his grandson Christian was diagnosed as autistic. But somewhere along the way, right about the time the drug companies started writing them huge checks, Autism Speaks began singing the praises of vaccines. Christian's mother Katie was so disgusted by this change in direction that she no longer has anything to do with the organization.
Firmly in the corner of the pharmaceutical companies are slimy folks like Dr. Paul Offit, a man who writes books like Autism's False Prophets to attack these concerned parents. Offit often appears as a talking head on news shows that are covering the controversy, and insists that there is no controversy and there is no link between autism and vaccines. Offit is also a major patent holder for RotaTeq, a rotavirus vaccine, so I can understand why he would be so desperate to portray the drug companies as blameless and holy.
Is there a link between vaccines and autism? I don't know. Honest to God, I don't know. Nobody knows. That's the point. All of these parents are scared to death that they've been unknowingly poisoning their children, and they want a definitive answer from someone who doesn't have a vested interest in the status quo. They're not asking for a ban on vaccines or massive government subsidies or anything unreasonable. All they want is an unbiased, third-party study to see if there is a link.
If the pharmaceutical companies honestly believe they shoulder none of the blame, then why work so hard to obscure the truth? Why only release the results of studies done by their own private research firms? Why spend so much money attacking the families of autistic children? Why subvert the issue when, if truth truly is on their side, they could easily vindicate themselves?
The drug companies definitely have money and public apathy on their side, but there is hope that the tide might be turning. Obama recently nominated Tom Daschle to head up the Department of Health and Human Services. Senator Daschle is most assuredly not anti-vaccine, but he has shown a willingness and a determination to question vaccine safety. Obama is also considering Robert Kennedy, Jr. to head up the EPA. Kennedy has long been a crusader against the irresponsible practices of the drug companies, and was one of the first to bring the potential link between vaccines and autism into the public light.
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical companies are trying a new (some might say desperate) tactic of pretending like there is no controversy. "Asked and answered" has become their new talking point. Any time a news show purports to cover the story, they get pharmaceutical reps and folks like Dr. Offit talking about how there is absolutely no merit whatsoever to the claims. And then, in an effort to appear balanced, they get a bogus group like Autism Speaks to simply reiterate what the drug companies are saying.
They know they'll never convince the concerned families, and frankly, they're not even making an effort anymore. They're just trying to convince the general public to keep on not giving a shit.
And God knows, we're pretty good at that.
Denis Leary's book, Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy, and Stupid, contains a chapter entitled "Autism, Schmautism," which claims that the majority of people who claim to be autistic are faking, and the true fault lies with "inattentive mothers and competitive dads." Leary obviously shares the same misconception about autism that a lot of folks do; he believes anyone who is truly autistic will manifest some kind of savant ability. So basically, anyone who claims to be autistic but isn't good at math or painting is just faking.
The thing is, Leary's schtick is political incorrectness. This guy has joked about everything from cancer patients to crack babies, and when confronted by angry, indignant folks, his response is usually to just blow smoke in their faces and tell them to quit being a bunch of fucking crybabies.
But in the wake of the backlash from autistic families, Leary's reaction has been surprisingly contrite. He's racing to cover his ass, claiming he was misquoted and taken out of context, and the only people who are outraged are ones who haven't actually read his book. (I haven't, but I did read that chapter.) He claims to have great love and respect for people who are truly autistic, and says his intent was not to belittle them or claim autism doesn't exist, but rather to attack "grown men who are either self-diagnosing themselves with low-level offshoots of the disease or wishing they could as a way to explain their failed careers and troublesome progeny."
Personally, I think he's full of shit. I think he lashed out at what he thought would be an easy target, and was surprised by the vehemence of the backlash. I mean, let's face it; when Michael Savage agrees with you, you've made some horrible life decisions somewhere along the way.
So sorry, Denis. Not buying it. But I admire your prodigious attempt to backpedal, and I have no doubt you sincerely *wish* you'd written something more noble. Maybe next time...